- Part 1: A World in Shadow
- Part 2: The Problem of Evil
- Part 3: Theodicies Examined
- Part 4: The Atheist’s Response
In a shaded jungle clearing, John Otolany watched grimly as ghostlike men in white protective clothing lowered a small body bag into the ground and sprayed the grave with disinfectant. He then reached for the edge of his T-shirt and wiped away a tear.
Otolany’s 5-year-old nephew was the fifth member of his family to die of the Ebola disease. His eldest son died two days later.
“I can’t cry any more,” he said. “If I do, everything will fall apart.”
Distraught parents railed at the heavens and demanded answers from Italian authorities on Sunday, as they bid farewell to 26 children killed when an earthquake demolished a school.
The biggest tremor to hit Italy since 1997 flattened the pastel yellow building in San Giuliano di Puglia on Thursday, wiping out almost an entire generation of six- and seven-year-olds in the small farming town.
…One woman clad in black and following the matching coffins of twins Luca and Gianmaria wailed at the sky: “Why did God do this to us? Why?”
At Bam’s cemetery, where thousands of quake victims have already been buried, workers dug 130-foot trenches to hold bodies wrapped in white shrouds. One woman pounded the ground with her fist.
“I was a good Muslim. I prayed to God all the time,” said 44-year-old Alma Sepehr, sobbing beside a grave holding the remains of 21 relatives including her daughter, son and husband. “Why did this happen to us?”
The sea and wreckage of coastal towns all around the Indian Ocean yielded up tens of thousands of bodies today, pushing the toll from Sunday’s tsunami past 59,000.
The apocalyptic destruction caused by the wave dwarfed the efforts of governments and relief agencies as they turned from rescuing survivors to trying to care for millions of homeless, increasingly threatened by disease amid the rotting corpses.
“Why did you do this to us, God?” wailed an old woman in a devastated fishing village in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state. “What did we do to upset you? This is worse than death.”
NEW YORK (AP) – Rescuers racing against the clock in a desperate attempt to find survivors in the World Trade Center’s rubble had a new enemy Friday: rain.
“The rain made the footing a little more dangerous,” said Richard Coppo, who volunteered as a rescue worker. “We thought that maybe the rain would settle the dust and make things better, but actually it stirred it up.”
…The rain fell off and on, often heavily, throughout the morning Friday.
“It slowed us down a little bit,” said rescue worker Mike O’Hare. “It affected the visibility, so we weren’t able to work quite as fast.”
…But at an armory, in hospitals and on the streets of Manhattan, thousands of distraught families searched for the missing.
Almost every sentence began the same: “Have you seen…”
And nearly every plea ended the same: “If you know anything, please call…”
…Caroline Burbank, 29, tried to keep her mind from wandering disturbing paths. On Tuesday, her fiance, Geoff Campbell, had left early for a conference both planned to attend at the Trade Center. Campbell has not come home.
“You picture what the scenarios could have been. And that’s the worst. If he was scared or if he was alone when the building went down,” she said, breaking into sobs.
They had not set a wedding date. “We were just going to go to the Caribbean and do it ourselves,” she said.
“When he gets out, that’s the first thing we’ll do.”
We live in a world in shadow. It is a fact, noted by every religion and belief system throughout history, that the human condition is defined by suffering. Merely to exist is to experience pain, and while some of us experience far more than others, it is something we must all face during our lives. Perhaps even worse than the mere fact of suffering’s existence is the frustrating randomness with which it occurs, so often striking the people who have done the least to deserve it, and our frequent powerlessness to help the afflicted innocent.
This great and terrible fact of suffering has been humanity’s constant companion. Our history as a species has been one long, slow climb up from the darkness, punctuated by much faltering, backsliding and frustration. For tens of thousands of years of human history, every day was a struggle to stay alive, and even with the dawn of civilization, little relief was forthcoming. Plagues and lethal epidemics swept continents like wildfire. Natural disasters led to the collapse of great empires. People lived on the edge of starvation, and a season of bad weather or social unrest that disrupted the harvest could lead to thousands of deaths. And as if these natural evils were not enough, human beings have never been found wanting in either the will or the ingenuity when it comes to inventing new ways to inflict suffering on their neighbors. Throughout the ages, war and all it entails have been an ever-present reality. The vast majority of people have always lived in poverty in totalitarian societies, presided over by ruling classes far more concerned with hoarding additional wealth and perpetuating their own power rather than doing anything to lift up the people they ruled. Whole civilizations have been eradicated by intercontinental warfare, infectious disease brought by invading conquerors, and a centuries-long trafficking in human lives that shipped millions of people across oceans to live out a lifetime of slavery in distant lands. Prejudice, bigotry and xenophobia used to be the order of the day, and in many places still are. In the present day, though a relative few in the industrialized world live in comparative luxury, many millions more around the world are still desperately poor, still largely uneducated, still lacking in the basic necessities of life, and still besieged by war, disease, famine and drought.
In the battle against suffering, humanity has won some notable victories. We are no longer nearly as powerless as we once were when it comes to controlling our own destinies. Some of the diseases that ravaged us in ages past have been wiped out or nearly so. The ideals of democracy and human rights have spread across the globe, however flawed and imperfect their implementations may be. Slavery itself has largely been eradicated, even if its painful legacy persists. And our knowledge of and ability to modify the workings of the human body continues to improve, promising much greater things that seem to lie just beyond the horizon. Still, when one considers the scope and the weight of suffering, one is inevitably struck by how incomplete our victories have been, how partial, and how much we have left to do. There are many evils against which we are still completely powerless; there are many more which we have the ability to combat, but which most of the world still suffers from.
As an example of the former, there is a truly horrifying genetic disorder, called epidermolysis bullosa, in which a mutation disables the ordinary activity of a protein crucial to maintaining the strength and elasticity of normal skin. The result is extremely fragile skin, sometimes referred to as “butterfly” skin because it is so delicate, in which even slight pressure or friction can produce severe blisters akin to second-degree burns. The disease manifests itself from birth, so the majority of sufferers are infants and children.
Massive scarring, secondary infection, loss of teeth, fingernails and toenails, anemia, malnutrition and disfigurement are common complications of EB. In more severe forms, blistering can occur even within the body: scarring of the lungs may cause difficulty breathing, inflammation of the eye can lead to blindness, and scarring and blistering within the mouth and throat may make the sufferer unable to swallow and require a surgically implanted feeding tube. Blistered fingers and toes may fuse together as they heal, requiring surgical separation. Some sufferers require a wheelchair because walking on blistered feet is too painful. Sufferers of some forms of EB are also at greatly increased risk of a malignant variety of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
There is no cure for epidermolysis bullosa, and the only treatment is to prevent blistering and infection as much as possible through intensive daily care. Antibiotic cream must be constantly applied to broken blisters, and large areas of the sufferer’s body may have to be wrapped in bandages that must be changed as often as twice a day. Severe skin damage may require skin grafts. People with less severe forms of EB can, with care, expect to live an ordinary lifespan; children with more severe forms of the disorder almost inevitably die while young.
As well as defects in its own operation (of which epidermolysis bullosa is arguably not even the worst), the human body is also threatened by invaders from without. Malaria, tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, influenza, syphilis, anthrax, bubonic plague, HIV and other microscopic killers have claimed millions of human lives through the ages and in some cases are still doing so, but in terms of sheer lethality and horror, few pathogens can compete with viral hemorrhagic diseases such as Ebola fever. Some strains of Ebola have mortality rates as high as 90% (by contrast, the overall death rate from severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused such panic in late 2002 and early 2003, is between 5 and 10%). The disease begins with high fever and muscle ache, but rapidly progresses to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and necrosis of internal organs, finally leading to death within six to ten days as sufferers bleed from every orifice in their body, including the eyes. Since the virus that causes Ebola fever is spread by direct contact with blood and body fluids, this is in effect an especially insidious way for it to come into contact with new victims and thereby assist in its own propagation. Although Ebola has largely subsided at present, the animal species that acts as its natural reservoir between outbreaks is unknown, and so there is no way of knowing if and when it will return.
Or consider parasites such as the guinea worm. This creature, found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, infects people’s bodies when they unknowingly drink water containing its tiny larvae. Once inside the body, the larvae, which are unaffected by stomach acid, drill through the intestinal wall and migrate into the body cavity. Over a period of about a year, the worm grows and matures, eventually reaching lengths of up to three feet. The adult worm takes up permanent residence somewhere just under the victim’s skin, usually in the lower limbs, where it causes swelling, an extremely painful burning sensation, and huge blisters. To relieve the pain, sufferers often seek refuge in the water, where the blister bursts and the worm wriggles out of the wound, releasing millions of larvae and starting the cycle over again. Short of surgery to remove the worm, the only way to treat sufferers is to catch the worm’s head when it emerges and very slowly extract it from the body by winding it around a stick – a process which can take days or weeks, while all the time the sufferer is in intense pain. The lasting effects can include months of incapacitation and permanent, crippling disability.
These small assailants – mutated genes, parasitic worm larvae, deadly viruses – are not humanity’s only enemies in the natural world. We also suffer from evil on much larger scales. The December 2003 earthquake that virtually destroyed the city of Bam, Iran and killed more than 25,000 people, or the catastrophic December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake whose ensuing tsunamis claimed over 150,000 lives and left millions more homeless throughout Southeast Asia, are still vivid and painful in humanity’s memory. But such tragedies are only the latest in a long history of devastation wrought on our species by natural disasters.
On the morning of November 1, 1755, a massive earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of around 9.0 on the Richter scale, struck just off the shore of Lisbon, Portugal. Over a period of about five minutes, a series of tremendous jolts rocked the city, bringing buildings crashing down and entombing tens of thousands in the rubble. Many of Lisbon’s magnificent cathedrals collapsed, killing thousands of worshippers who had gathered for morning mass on the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day. Witnesses wrote of gigantic fissures that tore open the ground in the heart of the city and huge clouds of dust that darkened the sky.
As the jolts subsided, many panicked survivors of the quake rushed to the docks for safety, seeking refuge from falling debris and fires. They were met by the sight of the waters rapidly drawing back, revealing sunken cargo and shipwrecks lying on the bare harbor bottom. But moments later, the water came rushing back in the form of a fifty-foot-high tsunami spawned by the quake, sweeping away and drowning thousands more. Even then, the destruction had not ended; the last and most crippling blow to Lisbon came in the form of fires that raged out of control for over three days afterward, destroying almost everything that the quake and the tsunami had not already leveled. Thousands of original books, manuscripts, and artwork in the city’s museums and libraries, including original paintings by Titian, Correggio and Rubens and priceless records of the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, were destroyed by the fire. In all, over 100,000 people lost their lives.
Examples such as these could be multiplied beyond counting. There are genetic disorders that afflict every function of the human body, infectious diseases and parasites that attack it at every point of vulnerability, natural disasters that can affect every community on the planet, and above and beyond all this, human beings throughout history have perpetrated every imaginable kind of horror and cruelty against each other. However, numbing the reader’s conscience further with all this tragedy serves no purpose. Instead, the question must be asked: Are these horrors really the handiwork of a kind and loving god?
The problem of evil is probably the most enduring and the most potent argument atheism has to offer against many varieties of theism. Christian apologist William Lane Craig aptly styled it “atheism’s killer argument”. In brief, it seeks to establish that the existence of evil in the world is logically incompatible with the existence of a benevolent God, and that it is more reasonable to conclude that God does not exist than that he does exist but does nothing to stop evil. Below is a formal presentation of the argument from evil, phrased as a disproof by contradiction:
Assumption (1): God exists.
Assumption (1a): God is all-knowing.
Assumption (1b): God is all-powerful.
Assumption (1c): God is perfectly loving.
Assumption (1d): Any being that did not possess all three of the above properties would not be God.
Premise (2): Evil exists.
Premise (3): An all-knowing being would be aware of the existence of evil.
Premise (4): An all-powerful being would be able to eliminate evil.
Premise (5): A perfectly loving being would desire to eliminate evil.
Conclusion (6): Evil does not exist. (from (1),(3),(4),(5))
Contradiction: But evil does exist. (from (2))
Conclusion (7): There is no being that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly loving. (from (2),(3),(4),(5))
Conclusion (8): God does not exist. (from (7),(1d))
The argument’s logic is ironclad, and its simple but far-reaching conclusion is that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly loving god. The only way to refute the problem of evil without surrendering the assumption that such a god exists is to deny one of its premises.
Of course, religious traditions that do not believe in such a god face little difficulty from the problem of evil, and there have been traditions such as these throughout history. For example, the classical Greek and Roman civilizations believed in many gods, some benevolent, some indifferent and some malevolent, that squabbled constantly over the fates of humans. Members of the ancient Manichaean faith believed that God is perfectly loving but not omnipotent, since he is opposed by an evil spirit just as powerful as himself. Even today, adherents of a movement called open theism believe that God, though he may be extremely powerful, is not infinitely powerful, and therefore may fail to prevent evil because he is unable to do so.
However, views such as these will not be addressed in this article. Whatever their theological legitimacy, such beliefs are relatively rare today and possess little influence, compared to the more traditional, “omnimax” view of God. How modern members of these traditions choose to reconcile their beliefs with the state of the world is up to them; the remainder of this article will discuss the problem of evil as it relates to traditional monotheism and show that the proffered solutions are inadequate.
One could also resolve the problem of evil by denying that evil exists at all, and again, some religious traditions have taken this route. However, religions of the Western tradition rarely do this. Evil is so vast, so pervasive, and so starkly real that essentially the only way to deny its existence is to retreat into solipsism and deny that the external world exists at all, and few belief systems are this openly anti-rational. In addition, the monotheistic Western religions are fundamentally evangelistic and rule-based, and these aspects of these traditions make them incompatible with this solution. After all, why would one bother following any particular set of rules for behavior if nothing bad will result from not doing so? How could one justify proselytizing others if there was nothing they needed to be saved from?
Since there is relatively little that is deniable about premises 3 and 4 – both of these are true by definition – most religious traditions that believe in an all-powerful, perfectly loving god and seek to reconcile this with the existence of evil attack premise 5, asserting that God has a reason for causing or allowing evil that is compatible with his perfectly loving nature. This type of argument is called a theodicy, and through the centuries theologians have offered a wide variety of theodicies defending God’s goodness in spite of a world so manifestly imperfect as ours. In the next section, these arguments will be examined and an atheist’s response to each of them will be given.
As a closing note, theists often ask how atheists can even recognize the existence of evil, as if lack of belief in God necessarily entailed lack of belief in moral standards. The simple answer is that we, as human beings, can perceive and sympathize with the pain of our fellow beings and wish to see it ended. A person need not believe in God to have a conscience. More formally, for purposes of this essay, it will be sufficient to define evil as unnecessary suffering, which is in accord with the moral system formulated in “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“.
The most straightforward explanation for the existence of evil is that we suffer because we deserve to. The Hebrew Bible, for example, repeatedly claims that the destruction God visits upon the Israelites is in retribution for their idolatry; likewise, some Christian apologists argue that the original sin inherited by all humans justifies any punishment God wishes to inflict upon us. Eastern religious traditions often embody this concept in the principle of karma.
The major problem with this explanation is that it fails the test of common experience; evil is plainly not distributed fairly. Everyone knows of instances where the evil have prospered while the good have suffered unjustly. In fact, too often it seems that it usually happens this way. Wars tend to disproportionately harm civilians who had nothing to do with the reasons for fighting; diseases usually strike those who had the closest contact with other sufferers rather than those who deserve it the most. Newborn babies and children suffer as well, sometimes from horrific diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa, cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease – what sins could they possibly have committed to deserve such a fate? Even Psalm 73 of the Bible notes such a phenomenon. The indiscriminateness, the sheer randomness of suffering refutes this explanation.
In addition, even when suffering is not distributed randomly, the patterns it does take tend to cast further doubt on the justice theodicy rather than support it. Suffering frequently divides along lines that seem to have little to do with deservingness and everything to do with accidents of circumstance or other reasons. For example, take chapter 31 of the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament. In this chapter, the Israelites go to war against a rival tribe, the Midianites, and slaughter all the adult males. In the aftermath of the battle, Moses, the great prophet, instructs his officers to kill all the male children and all the non-virgin females, but to save alive all the virgin female children “for yourselves” (Numbers 31:18).
The most common Christian apologia for this verse is that the Midianites were incorrigible sinners against God, and the Israelites were merely following a divine mandate for their extermination; however, since the children had not yet reached the “age of accountability”, they could be spared. However, this facile explanation fails to account for the fact that the male children were specifically marked for death. If any Midianite children were to be saved, why was it only the females? The text strongly implies that the true motivation behind this selective mercy was not the administration of justice – after all, if female children cannot commit a sin worthy of death, surely male children cannot either – but something less savory, as suggested by Moses’ instruction to his soldiers to keep the females alive for themselves.
One further example will illustrate how the justice theodicy fails the test of common experience. If it was truly the case that all people suffered commensurate with their misdeeds, there would be no need for courts or jails. Would proponents of this argument be willing to assert that these institutions are unnecessary and could safely be abolished?
This explanation also fails the test of conscience. If we accept its reasoning, the logical conclusion is that we should never try to help people who are in pain or in need – to do so would be to undo their God-decreed punishment. But any ethical human being must reject this conclusion as unacceptable. In fact, this explanation is flatly contradicted by the sacred texts of most religions themselves. All major holy books, including the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an, contain passages enjoining their readers to give to the poor and the needy, feed the hungry, tend to the sick, and so on. If any of these books are divinely inspired, the justice theodicy cannot be true. It would make no sense for God to order his followers to work to counteract a punishment that he himself sent.
Another simple explanation for the existence of evil is that God uses it to test us, to prove that our faithfulness to him is genuine and not just premised upon convenience or comfort. Such an explanation is precisely the one given in perhaps the most famous theodicy of all time, the Bible’s Book of Job, where God inflicts suffering on an innocent man in order to win a bet with Satan that doing so would not cause his faith to waver. The story of the Garden of Eden and the forbidden tree it contained is often cited as an example of this type of theodicy as well.
The most obvious problem with the testing theodicy is this: God is supposed to be all-knowing. He should be aware of the contents of people’s hearts without having to test them. A god who cannot know whether someone is loyal without testing them is a limited god. But a god who does know in advance what the results would be and unnecessarily inflicts suffering on people anyway is an evil god. Either way, adopting the testing theodicy contradicts at least one of the fundamental attributes that a perfect deity is supposed to have.
At this point, theists often object that the testing is not for God’s sake, but for ours, that it is meant to show us the strength of our faith. This is simply the “teaching defense,” which is discussed below.
The eschatological defense against the problem of evil asserts that suffering and injustice in this world are ultimately inconsequential, because there is another life beyond this one in which justice will finally be done – a world where the innocent will be rewarded and the guilty will be punished as they deserve.
In response to this, I argue that the eschatological defense fails to resolve the problem of evil, due to a simple truism: Justice delayed is justice denied. The promise of future happiness does not invalidate the reality of present suffering; moral goodness demands an immediate, not an eventual, response to evil.
As an illustration of this, consider the Christian Bible’s parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, from chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke, a man is assaulted by robbers, wounded and left lying by the side of the road. Two members of the priestly class pass by the wounded man but ignore him, but when a Samaritan (a member of a religious splinter group scorned by most Jews of Jesus’ day) sees the victim, he treats his wounds, takes him to an inn and pays the innkeeper to let him rest there and recover. This story is almost universally, and rightly, considered to be a powerful example of how moral goodness ultimately arises from compassion.
However, our positive evaluation of the Good Samaritan arises not just from the fact that he had compassion on the wounded man, but also because he was willing to put that compassion into practice through effective action at the time it was needed. To be morally effective, sympathy must be translated into deeds. We would not think much of the goodness of the Samaritan if he had instead left the wounded man to bleed in the ditch but promised he would come back tomorrow and help him then; we would probably judge such a person to be callous at best, particularly if he could have helped at the time but simply did not feel like doing so. And yet, this is precisely the response to evil that defenders of the eschatological theodicy attribute to God.
Whether evil will be abolished at a later time or not, evil still exists now, and that existence needs to be accounted for. Perhaps there is a Heaven where the righteous are repaid for their suffering while on Earth, but this does not solve the question: why did God allow them to suffer in the first place? If such a being exists, how can the claim of his goodness be reconciled with his manifest lack of action in the face of such evils? After traversing the logic of the entire eschatological theodicy, we wind up right back where we started, still facing the unresolved problem of evil.
The next four theodicies that will be discussed are subclasses of a more general defense, which I have styled the “greater good” theodicy. Such arguments assume that there is a particular end God desires to achieve that cannot be brought about except through the creation of evil, and that although God does not desire that evil exist, the potential good so outweighs this consideration that he had little choice but to bring it about in order to achieve the best overall result. Evil is not an end in itself, but rather an unfortunate but necessary side product of God’s plan. An analogy that apologists frequently use is a bear with its foot caught in a trap and a veterinarian who wishes to free the bear, but must shoot it with a tranquilizer dart to do so. Unable to see the bigger picture, the bear would feel pain from the dart and think of the veterinarian as evil, not realizing the pain was for its own good.
In general, the response to greater good theodicies is to point out that they assume a limited god. A veterinarian is not omnipotent, and cannot free a trapped bear without temporarily causing greater pain. But God, as traditionally defined, is omnipotent. An omnipotent being would not need to rely on intermediate mechanisms and contrivances to bring about a desired result, but could actualize that result directly through will alone. The reason that people create pocketwatches to tell the time for them, airplanes to transport them, or computers to perform calculations for them is because humans are limited beings who must create these things to compensate for our own lack of ability to do these tasks directly. But such considerations, presumably, do not apply to God, and therefore the greater good defense fails; it cannot get God “off the hook” for the existence of suffering, and so the most reasonable conclusion is still that no such being exists. We will see how this principle applies to more specific versions of this defense.
A common theodicy, especially in Christian circles, is the free will defense to the problem of evil. Defenders of this argument claim that God does not want human beings to harm each other, but still less does he want a world of human automatons who act only as they have been programmed to act. They go on to claim that desirable qualities such as love, faith and devotion can only exist when freely chosen, and that although God’s granting us free will makes it possible for us to do evil, it is also the only thing that enables us to be genuinely good.
There is an observation, denied by no one, that should be made in response to this: human beings are not completely free. We do not, for example, have the ability to fly unassisted, read all the books in a library in an hour, or travel through space faster than the speed of light. No matter how much we will these things, we cannot do them. And yet this is not usually seen as an infringement on our free will, even by theists. This is a perfectly sensible position. Even though our possible actions are restricted by a set of parameters, we are still free within those parameters – free will does not require infinite choice.
Given this fact, the following realization contains the key to refuting the free will theodicy: why does being free require the ability to harm others? If, as many theists insist, all that is required of us during this life is to make one choice – either to worship God as he directs or to reject him – then there is no reason why we need that ability. An all-powerful, all-wise deity could have set up the world in such a way as to make it literally impossible for people to do this. This solution would have been commendably fair; people who chose evil would only harm themselves as a result of their bad decision, and would not have been able to make innocents suffer. However, we do not live in such a world. The world we live in is one where those who choose to can inflict evil on others, begging the question of why a benevolent god would allow such a thing (assuming one exists) – and so we return to the problem of evil full-fledged.
In addition, even if all the arguments presented above are rejected, the free will theodicy still can only account for moral evil. It cannot begin to explain natural evil, disasters for which no human being is responsible. Witness the excerpt from Part 1 of this essay, in which the efforts of rescue workers searching for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center were hampered by rain in the days immediately after September 11. Is it possible that a few more people might have been pulled from the wreckage alive – even just one or two more – if not for that rain? Even assuming events such as the September 11 attacks happened because God gave the perpetrators free will, there is no reason for him to make things even worse. If sending this rain infringed on the rescuers’ free will, then this theodicy must be considered a failure. If, on the other hand, God can use natural events to frustrate the freely-willed choices of people without violating their free will, why didn’t he thwart the terrorists rather than the rescue workers?
A frequently encountered type of theodicy, sometimes called the “soul-making” theodicy, is that the existence of evil is a tool to perfect us. By responding to and overcoming evil, people undergo spiritual growth which makes them better suited to ultimately come to know and experience God in the way he desires for us.
The first and most obvious point against this argument is that, if the purpose of suffering is to perfect us, then all people should suffer equally. But this is clearly not the case. Some people live short lives full of horrendous pain and suffering, while others exist in tremendous luxury and comfort for virtually their entire lives. Are we to believe that these fortunate few require less spiritual growth than everyone else? But this cannot be the case, since virtually every religious tradition warns that wealth is almost always a hindrance rather than an aid to salvation. Again, the random distribution of suffering refutes this argument.
Secondly, if suffering is meant to bring us closer to God, then we can safely say that it is a failure at that purpose, because often it has the opposite effect. Many people turn away from belief in God and become atheists after witnessing the amount of pointless tragedy in the world and the absence of divine aid to those who need it most. Even prominent religious leaders are sometimes driven to question God’s existence by the magnitude of evil and suffering . Such evil is not only unnecessary for God to achieve his goals, it actively works against these goals, giving an all-powerful deity even more incentive to eliminate it if such a being exists. Yet evil remains manifestly uneliminated.
Finally, the implicit premise of this argument is that confronting and overcoming suffering is either the only or the best way to improve a person’s character. But this idea is contradicted by the belief, of the theists who propose it, in a god who is already morally perfect without ever having to be perfected by suffering. If such a being exists, then suffering is clearly not a mandatory prerequisite for virtue, and again we reach the conclusion that human suffering is unnecessary. If God can do anything that is possible, and if his desire is that we be morally perfect, why would he not just create us that way in the first place, rather than deliberately creating imperfect beings and then putting them through vast amounts of suffering merely to fix his originally flawed handiwork?
An all-powerful god would be able to create morally flawless beings, and a benevolent one would desire to do so. As an analogy, imagine that you are a parent with a young child, and that you are trying to teach your child that stoves are extremely hot and should not be touched. Which would be better – that your child learn this the hard way by touching the stove and burning his hand despite your repeated admonitions, or that your child listen to your advice, obey it and never burn himself? As a good and loving parent, which scenario would you prefer? Would a child who learned without ever touching the stove be somehow deficient compared to one who did? The only difference is that human parents, not being omnipotent, cannot create their child so as to ensure he follows their good advice; but an omnipotent god could. Again, there is no reason why building a good character requires suffering, and a world where such a character is built up without suffering is always morally preferable to one where suffering takes place. Therefore, the teaching theodicy cannot alter the conclusion that whatever suffering does exist in this world is unnecessary, and the problem of evil persists.
The contrast theodicy argues that God desires to display his positive attributes, such as goodness, mercy, love and justice, to his creation, and this would either be impossible or much more difficult if we had never known things to be any different. Under this argument, evil exists in order to more clearly show God’s goodness by comparison, just as a bright red rose would be difficult to see in a red room but would be far more obvious in one that was painted entirely white.
The problem with this defense is that a being who created evil, or allowed it to come into existence, could not rationally be considered good at all. We would never accept, much less praise, such an explanation of equivalent actions performed by a human being. For example, how would we judge a fireman who went around setting people’s houses on fire so that he could prove how heroic he was by rescuing them from the danger that he himself created? How would we judge a doctor who deliberately infected patients with infectious diseases so that he could show off his consummate skill by later curing them? Surely, we would not judge such people to be good at all, but evil; to do otherwise would be a moral absurdity. And this conclusion would only be further reinforced if they only saved some of the people their actions put in danger and left others to die. There is nothing good or praiseworthy about saving people from a danger of your own making.
An omnipotent God would not need to cause people to suffer to prove his goodness to them. If it was God’s desire that people know about his positive qualities, he could have used his omnipotent power to instill that knowledge in them directly. Many religions already claim that all people possess an instinctive knowledge of God’s existence that depends on no external experience, so there is clearly nothing contradictory about this idea even according to these religions’ own beliefs. Again, the contrast theodicy fails to alter the conclusion that whatever suffering does exist in the world is unnecessary.
The final type of theodicy, which almost all theistic replies to the argument from evil eventually seem to fall back on, is the unknown purpose defense. This defense simply states that God has a purpose for allowing suffering, but we do not know what that purpose is. Some versions of this theodicy go further by stating that we can never know what the purpose is and that the answer to the problem of evil is a mystery that lies beyond human comprehension.
Though many who use this defense may not realize it, the unknown purpose theodicy effectively amounts to abandoning the claim of God’s goodness. After all, if God allows evil for reasons unknown to us, then what grounds do theists have for judging him to be morally good? Making that determination requires at least some understanding of motive and intent. If we have no idea at all why God does what he does, if the reasons for his actions are incomprehensible to us, then to be consistent we would have to say that we do not know whether he is good or evil. Certainly there is no obvious reason why disasters happen as they do, so how could any theist know that the true reason, whatever it is, is for the better and not for the worse?
To proclaim God to be good and then assert that he has unknown purposes for allowing evil is an inconsistent position. Most theists do not hesitate to ascribe benevolent motives to God when they believe he has done something that benefits them, such as the miraculous healing of an illness. But when something happens that would tend to cast doubt on God’s goodness, such as a destructive tsunami or an epidemic, they draw back and claim that we cannot understand God’s motives. This is special pleading in its purest form. We would not hesitate to judge a fellow human being’s character by both the good and the bad actions they perform, nor would we go on blithely assuming that they had a sufficient justifying reason no matter how many seemingly evil deeds they commit.
Additionally, if God has an important purpose for permitting evil, then why do we try so hard to stop it? How do theists know they are not working in opposition to God’s will every time they vaccinate a child or give money to a poor man? A consistent follower of the unknown purpose defense would never try to stop suffering, since any suffering that God does allow must be needed for some greater good; otherwise he would not have allowed it. Of course, almost no one actually behaves this way when confronted with tragedy, which is fortunate. Nevertheless, by their compassionate actions, theists show that they themselves do not believe this.
Like all versions of the greater good theodicy, this defense overlooks the fact that if God exists and is omnipotent, then whatever his goal is, he could have achieved it without causing anyone to suffer. An omnipotent being could actualize any desired state of affairs directly and would not have to bring it about as the end result of a chain of intermediate states. Of course, there is no logical reason why such a being could not do this, but if the intermediate states involved vast amounts of innocent suffering while the final state did not, only an evil being would choose the gradual route over the direct one. And yet this is exactly what proponents of this theodicy – or any theodicy – would have us believe God did in fact do. Like all proposed solutions to the problem of evil, the unknown purpose defense fails to overcome the central dilemma: if there is a god who has the power to eliminate evil but chooses not to, such a being could only be considered evil and thus would not be worthy of worship. As it has been said, the only thing that could excuse God is his nonexistence.
Now that the problem of evil has been delineated and an explanation given of why it is an insuperable problem for traditional theism, the final section of this essay will discuss how an atheist responds to evil. Atheism, of course, does not have to confront the problem of evil in the same way that theism does. An atheist has no reason to expect things to be any different than they are. The universe is what it is: a vast, majestic, but implacable place governed by natural laws that make no allowance for our desires and are indifferent to our suffering.
However, in a far more practical and urgent sense, atheism does have to confront the problem of evil: not with philosophy, but with action. We are all in this together. If the universe does not care about us, that makes it all the more imperative that we care; if there is no god to look after us, that only means it is even more important that we look after each other. It is our moral duty, when we see our fellow beings suffering, to ease their pain as much as we possibly can. In this sense, atheists and theists alike are, or at least should be, united against the burden of evil that plagues our world. It is our greatest tragedy and our greatest failing that this has so often not been the case – that on so many occasions in our history we have neglected or outright contributed to the pain of others. There can be no justification for this. The things that make us alike are so much more profound, and so much more important, than the things that divide us that there is no excuse for overlooking the one for the other.
The insidious effect of theodicy is that it encourages complacency, or worse, approval of the world’s suffering based on the assumption that whatever happens is God’s will. When the 9/11 attacks struck America, Muslims from various parts of the world cheered them as God’s deserved judgment; and when the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated largely Muslim areas of Southeast Asia, there were Christians who said the same. Epidemic diseases throughout history from AIDS to the Black Plague have been explained as the just punishment of sinners. And, let us not forget, there are apocalyptic believers in all three of the major Abrahamic religions who encourage continued bloodshed and violence in the Middle East because they believe it will hasten the end of the world, which they see as a good thing since it will be followed by the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth.
While there are members of every religion who reject these repugnant views, it is atheists who have the best reason for doing so. When we wait for divine deliverance that inevitably never comes, when we turn our efforts to prayer and worship instead of action, we expend time and resources that could more usefully have been spent on working to lighten the weight of suffering. We need, instead, to help one another and make the world a better place through our own efforts. Evil may never be eliminated completely, but it is our duty and our burden to reduce it as much as we possibly can. That is the heart and soul of morality, and that is an atheist’s response to the problem of evil.
That said, I realize that faith in God can be a powerful source of comfort and strength in times of tragedy, and I would never seek to deprive people of those things without compelling reason. If a person’s religious belief helps them cope during difficult times, I will not question it, so long as that faith does not direct them to harm others or otherwise intrude on their lives. Although I believe the problem of evil is a convincing refutation of many forms of theism, I also believe that it is more important to ensure that all people are happy than that we all think alike. However, I do ask in return that theists at least acknowledge that there are valid reasons why people are atheists, and respect our right to believe or not believe as we see fit.
At the beginning of this essay, I wrote that humanity’s long tale has been marked by disaster, injustice, and suffering at every turn. This is sadly and undeniably true, but there is another side to the story as well. As difficult as it is to perceive at times, in spite of the tortuously slow progress and the frequent steps backward, things are getting better. While it is overly simplistic to say that human history has been a steady march of progress, a trend of improvement nevertheless is noticeable over time, and barring some unforeseen catastrophe, the odds are good that still greater things await us in the future. It may well be that the paradise our ancestors dreamed of will eventually come to pass, but it will not be brought about through an instantaneous flash of divine power; it will be built up one brick at a time, through the accumulated labor and dedication of millions of people through the ages. There is much to grieve over in our world, but there is also reason to hope: hope that someday the day will come when we will put an end, once and for all, to the evils that afflict us. Though we can never undo past wrongs, it is within our power to do the next best thing, which is to ensure that they never happen again. Rather than live on our knees meekly accepting whatever evil befalls us as inevitable, we can and should fight to make this world into the one we want it to be. This is the meaning of atheism.
• Katrina, 2005: Reflections on the argument from evil in light of the recent hurricane that destroyed the city of New Orleans.
 “Ebola outbreak leaves villagers puzzled, scared”, USA Today, 22 July 2002. Available online at http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2002/01/07/ebola.htm.
 “Iran thanks America for earthquake relief”, MSNBC News, 30 December 2003. Available online at
 “Asia struggles with disease threat”, Reuters, 29 December 2004. Available online at http://www.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,4057,11803676%255E1702,00.html.
 Deborah Hastings, “Rain hampers WTC recovery efforts”, Associated Press, 14 September 2001. Also see http://www.scripps.com/featurefronts/change/fiancees.html.
 Rowan Williams, “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence”, The Daily Telegraph, 2 January 2005. Available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/01/02/do0201.xml. See also http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/01/02/nbish02.xml.